Archive for the Atwood Category

GMOs: A Case Study in Risk Perception

Posted in Atwood, Rhetoric, Risk & Fear with tags , , on February 18, 2010 by Sarah

As you all know, I’m always trying to get us not just to be more enlightened about the environmental problems out there, but to become more critical about how we come to perceive what and which environmental problems to focus on or care about.  Follow me?   I want us to be always vigilant about the rhetoric of environmental crisis; that’s one of the top “learning outcomes” of our class, recall? 

We’ll spend quite a bit of time talking about “risk perception” in upcoming weeks, but this article gives us a little forecast of the importance of risk perception to the aforementioned vigilance.  The basic premise of risk perception is that there are all kinds of forces–some corporate, some media, some social/cultural, etc etc– that shape what we perceive to be problems we should take seriously.  It really has nothing to do with what are truly the greatest threats.  We purchase home insurance based on 5% risk of anything happening to it, but many of us don’t believe that climate change is occuring, even when “scientific uncertainty” amounts to far greater likelihood than 5%.   This is an example of how risk perception is influenced by a whole gamut of forces– laws, corporate interest, media portrayal of home disasters, fear of ‘others’, time-scale of the given risk, scope and geographical scale of that risk, perceived origins of that risk, ability to imagine threats to home better than threats to planet, etc– rather than the reality of the threat. 

Framing all of this in terms of GMOs, we might ask, “why don’t we care about GMOs?”, “Why are GMOs less scary to us than environmental refugees?”  

Check out the article’s treatment of GMOs by scrolling down.  Here’s a taste:

Imagine you are back running your media company. Following reports from Europe that consumers are demonstrating against GMOs, a biotech industry organization asks you to come up with a good risk communication strategy in the US. Realizing just how complex a task this is, you decide to study the field extensively.

…Before going forward you decide this time to set up some focus groups and commission some quantitative opinion research. And you immediately learn something astonishing. When you ask people if they have ever eaten any GM food, most say no. A majority of Americans are very surprised to learn they have been eating GM food—notably foods with GM corn and soy ingredients—for five or six years. And when they find out, they get angry, asking such questions as “Why weren’t we told?” and “Why isn’t the food labeled?” (Palfreman, 2001).

…You conclude that things are perilous. Any adverse reports about GMOs are likely to be reported, published, and picked up by the popular media, and any perceived risks amplified and ratcheted up. So, what is the best risk communication strategy? You cannot do much about the fact that GMOs are not perceived as necessary. You also feel it might be dangerous for biotech companies to make too much of the fact that GMOs will feed the world, given that most people realize they are, like all private companies, trying to make profits. But one variable appears very promising: choice. The ideal strategy is staring you in the face: labeling!

… You hand in your report, recommending your employer to lobby the FDA intensively to introduce mandatory labeling. Unfortunately, your advice is too counter-intuitive for your client. The biotech organization fires you and retains another media company instead.  Welcome to the thankless world of risk communication!

Perfection is a Liobam

Posted in Atwood, Post-Apocalypse on February 18, 2010 by rcspray

One of the things that struck me about “The Year of the Flood” was the convoluted sense of perfection in the book.

Pigoons: pigs that grow human organs. From

  1. Corporations are trying to make perfect humans and perfect animals. That’s what’s up with all the gene-splicing; skin, hair, face, whatever replacements; the liobams and pigoons and even BlyssPlus (It’s perfect sex).
  2. Then there’s the God Gardener’s sense of perfection, which is a little more down to earth and involves trying to perfect human nature and especially human’s relationship to the earth and other animals.
  3. Then there’s Crake out there trying to create the perfect people, which apparently he does (Perfect to whom?), and does so by combining God Gardener’s beliefs and manpower with the gene-splicing creationism of the Corporations.

In the novel, it’s this push for perfection that ends humanity (Ironic that the guy who’s trying to create the perfect people ends up killing all the “unperfect” ones off – including himself). The book begs the question how close can you get to perfection before you create a monstrosity?

And then at the end of the book, you’re left with only two visions of perfection:

The Crakers (as they’re called in “Oryx and Crake”, the parallel-prequel that deals Crake, Oryx and Jimmy) who are supposedly perfect but will they survive this harsh new world? And will their world and themselves be any more perfect than ours (are we just not the right species)?

And the God’s Gardeners, mostly the more practical and more violent members, who get to use all their fun gardener skills in trying to rebuild this new world?

Are either of these two groups perfect? Or can they become perfect?

A snat, just another something OrganInc Farms.

More illustrations of “Oryx and Crake” at

Style Matters

Posted in Atwood with tags on February 17, 2010 by Courtney

After reading “The Parable of the Sower”, a question was raised about style. It was asked whether or not you needed the history of the main character to appreciate the present? Buttler did not give us any real back story on Lauren the main character, and I got along just fine without it; now to apply the same question to “The Year of the Flood” by Atwood. The style that her book is written in is completely different than the style that Buttler chose. Atwood has a confusing style at first, and I personally found it bothersome. The book starts off with a poem. At the bottom of the page it says “From The God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook”. So it’s a religious song? I guess so. The first chapter has “Toby” written at the top. I assumed this was a guy (later I found out it is a girl). The line below that says “YEAR TWENTY-FIVE, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD”. Having already had a hint of religion, I believe that the year twenty-five would either refer to the amount of time that has passed since the flood, or that the year twenty-five is the year the flood takes place. Now I’m kind of rusty on my stories from the bible, but I’m pretty sure that Noah didn’t build the ark in year 25. Starting to read the first chapter of the book, it describes the main character Toby climbing in and around old buildings. It is obvious that this is in the feature, and that the ‘flood’ has already happened.

Now for the second chapter, by Ren. A new character, and she has her own chapters. So this is the style that the book is going to be written in: the two main characters will narrate their experiences and lives in their own chapters. Flipping ahead through the book, all chapters are either by Ren or by Toby, so if they ever do meet it will still be from their own perspective.

Having encountered this style before, I am not a fan of it. I guess I should be grateful that there are only two characters, and not five. As you read on, the chapters are narrated by Ren or Toby, but they jump through time. There are several words that Atwood made up, and were confusing until a jump back in time they are explained to you. There is a character that is confusing: Adam One. Now, going with religion, that is not hard to figure out. But when referring to the original Adam and Eve, they are not given a number, but Adam One does. After continuing on, you learn that they are leaders of the religious sect. This is confusing until you understand what is going on. The Adam’s and Eve’s are referred to by both their Adam/Eve and number, or by their names. Take notes if you need to (and on the funny words).

So overall, Atwood has a very complex style for writing this book. It is very thick and has a lot of meanings that are not obvious to the reader at first. But does it work? Is it too distracting? Do we need to know about all the past information or can we just roll with the present like in “The Parable of the Sower”?

You can’t tell me what to do, you don’t OWN me!

Posted in Atwood on February 17, 2010 by rudweiser

Well, technically parts of you are owned. It’s possible today to put a patent on life, and it’s happening.  How can you claim ownership on something that’s naturally occurring within every animal on this earth as yours? It’s not legal to put a patent anything naturally occurring, such as a dog or a plant. But genetically modified organisms such as soy beans or mice modified to be prone to cancer, can be patented. For a gene to be patented, it must be in it’s isolated sequence that is not naturally occurring. Today, approximately one fifth of the genes in your body belong to somebody else. This poses many problems concerning our health. If you have a disease, such as breast cancer and you want to get that tissue tested at the hospital, the hospital doesn’t have any say in the price of that test. It is up to the owner of that gene to charge any price they like. Having to pay royalties to use genes that have been patented have diverted scientists from studying diseases such as SARS due to the fear of infringement. Why would anybody want to patent a gene? Most biotech companies claim that the use of patents encourages investments in genetic research. But if there weren’t patents on genes, they would be available for research by many scientists, allowing for a full spectrum of information that could have practical applications to better society’s health. So, to answer the previous blog post, can corporations kill us? Yes. If you can’t afford a simple tissue test for breast cancer because the owner of the gene is charging royalties, how will you know if you have breast cancer? I find it unbelievable/frightening that somebody can claim ownership of a gene that’s within every human being. I don’t see gene patenting as benefiting anybody except for those who collect the royalties.

Further reading:

cnn – breast cancer gene patent lawsuit

G.M.O.’s (Goods Most Offal)

Posted in Atwood, Natural Disasters, Risk & Fear with tags on February 17, 2010 by Rita

      If you’re like me, I had heard the terminology of G.M.O.’s and knew the basic definition of G.M.O.’s but I hadn’t really given too  much time, thought, or energy into understanding what this topic is or how it impacts us all. SO…I’ll try and give some info on all this and hopefully it will get YOU to thinking!

     For those who don’t know, in a nutshell, G.M.O.s are genetically modified, mutated, or mutilated (depending on your view) substances. Wikipedia states that a G.M.O. is a,

 “Genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.”

     Some examples of severely altered substances are; a species of corn that produces its own pesticide as it grows, a golden rice made from vitamins for use in countries where the populace is malnourished and/or poor, and  tomatoes spliced with flounder DNA producing tomatoes that can withstand cold temperatures.

     According to Jeffrey Smith, a leading G.M.O. expert,, every human in the world should be horrified that G.M.O.s are not being labeled in our foods, that this playing “God” is going to come back and bite us in the ass, and we need to gain knowledge and use that knowledge to stop this organismistic tampering now. For those of you wanting more information and to learn about some of the political prostituting involving G.M.O.s, here’s a good website to start with;

     Before you swallow, did you know that 40% of the foods found and purchased by you in the grocery store have G.M.O.s in it! This occurs do to… 

  Government + Greedy Politicians + Big Businesses =

                                      NO LABELING OF PRODUCTS  REQUIRED!

      Some examples of products found in stores that have been tested and found to have trace amounts of or more G.M.O.s are:

  • Fritos
  • Corn Flakes (General Mills & Kellogg’s)
  • Soy Baby Formula (Enfamil, Nestle Carnation, & Similac Isomil)
  • Granola Bars (Quaker Chewy & Nabisco Snackwell’s)
  • Ball Park Franks
  • Duncan Hines Cake Mix
  • Ultra Slim Fast
  • Alpo Dry Pet Food
  • Gardenburgers
  • Morning Star Farms products
  • Canola Oil

       Fresh Produce

  • Corn
  • Papaya
  • Potato
  • Soybeans
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes


              As the saying goes,

                                  “You are what you eat!”

                                                           Welcome to the Freak Show.

Can Corporations Kill Us?

Posted in Atwood, Climate Change, Environmental Security, Popular Culture on February 15, 2010 by cjreevesii

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately, and one question keeps popping into my mind. Can corporations kill us? Well, I guess I should clarify my question. I wouldn’t want anyone having nightmares of large skyscrapers with red, gleaming eyes hiding in their closet, waiting for the right moment to pounce. I guess what I’m asking is; can corporate interests and actions harm the environment, and ultimately us? Today we know that corporations, for good or bad, are major influences on our lives. For example, of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporation led countries while only 49 are countries; based on a comparison of corporate sales and country GDPs[1]. In this era of globalization, people are becoming more aware of the motives of multinational corporations, and corporate-led globalization is being met with increasing protest and resistance. Most commonly we see this form of resistance in books like Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But it is not these books however that peek my interest. In general, it is the call to question why so many individuals believe that corporations can be conclusively harmful.

To try and reconcile this question, let’s first begin by looking at the major industries corporations make their home turf (such as the auto, mining, pharmaceuticals, oil and chemical based industries). All of these are major areas in which major countries are run, and because these corporations hold so much power over these critical resources, is it unreasonable to ask that they be held to some extent accountable for what is happening to our world? Recent years have witnessed increasing importance on corporate social responsibility, especially as concerns about climate change are becoming main-stream. There have been criticisms of corporate social responsibility from ardent free trade capitalists and anti globalization activists/environmentalists alike. But seeing no change of major companies towards a greener way of living, one question still remains. Do corporations have a moral obligation to society? If so, how far does their moral obligation extend?

One major “high flying” executive believes corporations should be held to a higher moral standard then is accepted now. In a recent interview with CNET News, Cisco Systems’ CEO John Chambers gave the following answer when asked what role corporations should play in making the world a better place.

“I believe that those who have been successful are obligated to give back to those who have been less successful. That’s what my family believes. That’s what I believe. That is what Silicon Valley believes. When Cisco first started, Hewlett-Packard helped us a lot. I was a little company then, and after a year and a half I finally had the courage to ask (because I was afraid that if I asked they might stop): “Why are your top executives spending time with us?” And they said, “Because it’s the right thing to do. Helping others is the right thing to do[2]

Although many perspectives are trying to make corporate behavior more responsible when it comes to ethics, working conditions, environmental sustainability, etc, are we moving in the right direction if one of the corporate elites can take a stand and confirm that the general populaces concerns should be the concerns of corporations? Or could it be that corporations will continue to placate us with pretend solutions until we eventually run this planet dry of resources?

Whatever the conclusion, the debate is just getting started, and it looks like we’ll all be right in the thick of it. So grab hold of the nearest bandwagon and settle down for the longest ride of your life.

Check out this unique video on consumerism and how that affects our planet.



Guerrilla Gardening

Posted in Atwood, Post-Apocalypse with tags , , on January 26, 2010 by Sarah

When we get to reading The Year of the Flood, we’ll find this link to “guerrilla gardening” of interest.    Gardens have a long history of utopic possibility.  One of the spaces of resistance and possibility is the garden, which impossibly emerges in the otherwise blighted, dangerous, post-industrialized scene of the novel.  How does the garden evoke utopic possibility in the novel?  What does the idea of garden evoke to you?

For one, as the rise of guerrilla gardening suggests, the garden in postmodern life can be seen as representing resistance to the enclosure of public space, a “taking into our own hands” of the systems of production and consumption (i.e. subsistence) that modernity has otherwise taken out of our hands.  The industrialization of food production that accompanies postmodernity has served to exacerbate gaps between wealthy and poor, the global north and the global south, and communities of color (often urban) and whites, for instance.    Around the theme of “food”, then, we can articulate the contours of modern injustice, which the novel’s focus on the garden may be attempting to do.

How did the garden become a leitmotif of ecological resistance?  With the increasing real-life loss of public spaces in which to protest, debate, speak freely, perform, etc.– a loss that Atwood dystopically dramatizes in the novel–  the real-life “guerrilla gardening” movement has “cropped up”, so to speak, in resistance to the industrialization of food and as a reclamation of civil society vis-a-vis public space.  

How does Atwood address this tension between lost public space and resistances to that loss through her focus on the garden?   How does this relate to the Biblical “garden” to which she is also clearly referring?  How can we bring all these typologies of “the garden” to deepen our reading of the novel?